Gayoom and his legacy – the major obstacle to consolidating democracy in the Maldives

Gayoom, Naifaru, 1979

Ahmed Hamdhan, a Maldivian political science student at the Australian National University, argues there’s more to restoring democracy than winning the general elections—cleansing all state and independent institutions of entrenched authoritarian loyalists is also indispensable to successful democratic consolidation.

Maldives’ first multiparty presidential elections of 2008 ended Gayoom’s thirty year dictatorship and adopted democratic rule. But, like many other nascent democracies, the threat exists that Maldives may not be able to sustain its democracy in its fullest sense. This is especially true after the coup orchestrated by the Maldivian security forces that ousted the first democratically elected President in February 2012. Added to this is the political activeness of dictator Gayoom, which in itself tends to heighten the prospect of Maldives falling back to a dictatorship.

As we head to the second democratic election in history, I want to ask: will a popular election alone help foster democracy in Maldives? Moreover, how could we prevent a full-blown authoritarian reversal with power back in the hands of Gayoom?

Gayoom’s continuing influence over Maldivian politics cannot be denied. This is not a unique experience for nascent democracies. Research has established that legacies of authoritarianism from which democracies emerge put more direct pressure on democracies than cultural and economic factors[i]. This kind of pressure from Gayoom’s legacy on Maldives’ efforts to democratic transition is manifest in ways. Take, for instance, the country’s political institutions.

During three years of democracy, attempts by Nasheed’s government to implement reforms needed for the consolidation of democracy were met with ever increasing obstructions from Gayoom loyalists within various institutions.

Firstly, the effort to create an independent judiciary (without which a modern democracy cannot function) has been entirely undermined by judges loyal to Gayoom. The Supreme Court bench itself is composed mostly of Gayoom loyalists who share his political ideologies.

It makes sense to me now that, when Majlis voted on President Nasheed’s nominations, DRP opposed most of them. Having been in a position to observe the negotiations closely, I myself believe that Nasheed’s nominations, opposed by DRP, comprised less biased, more suitable candidates.

At the time DRP was Gayoom’s party with majority in Parliament. DRP MPs made a habit of rejecting Nasheed’s nominations and proposing a list of their own instead. They pushed hard to sit certain individuals—like self-declared Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, a known Gayoom-affiliate—on the bench. With the country facing a Constitutional void, President Nasheed compromised and nominated the current bench for Parliament approval.

Aishath Velezenee, a former Member of the Judicial Services Commission has provided a detailed account of how the process for appointing Supreme Court Judges took place. The simple truth that we all know is, Supreme Court decisions have in one way or the other, benefited Gayoom and his allies. Is it a coincidence there is yet to be a Supreme Court decision that went against Gayoom or his allies?

Gayoom loyalists are similarly entrenched within the security services. Their loyalty to the dear leader had a major role to play in their mutiny against Nasheed on 7 February, facilitating as it did the controversial transfer of power later that day. Gayoom has denied widely circulated reports he was directing the night’s events from Malaysia. It cannot be denied, however, that he gave a phone interview to opposition-controlled media, indirectly encouraging the mutinying police.

It is no coincidence that after the coup, the head of security services are all pro-Gayoom loyalists. Now we have a Police Commissioner who served as the Deputy Commissioner in Gayoom’s regime, a regime well known for police brutality and torture. The Defence Minister is a retired Colonel who also served under Gayoom. Furthermore, a reflection on the events in February 8 last year also shows that our security forces still continue Gayoom’s legacies. Police brutality towards peaceful protesters, a defining characteristic of Gayoom’s regime, returned to the streets of Male’ with a vengeance, less than 24 hours after Nasheed’s government was brought to an end. It wasn’t hard to feel as if we had regressed, before 2008, before democracy.

Independent institutions play a vital role in consolidation of a democracy. Unfortunately for the Maldives, Gayoom loyalists are firmly embedded within, and often dominates, institutions like the Human Rights Commission, Police Integrity Commission and Civil Service Commission. Most individuals comprising the commissions served in Gayoom’s government and still maintain close ties with him. This is hardly surprising given that just as with the nomination of Supreme Court justices, here too it was a DRP-majority Majlis that confirmed or rejected nominees to commissions. The loyalty of some independent commissions to Gayoom was indeed evident from their actions following the police brutality on February 8. Neither the Human Rights Commission, nor the Policy Integrity Commission took any firm actions against the misconducts from the security forces.

Gayoom’s current party PPM is so determined to retain these loyalists within the independent commissions that it is prepared to disregard even findings of serious misconduct against such individuals. The ongoing saga of Civil Service Commission (CSC) Chair Mohamed Fahmy is a case in point.

Parliament’s Independent Institutions Committee found in favour of a female staff member who accused Fahmy of sexual harassment and voted to remove him from the post. PPM members fought hard, but in vain, to save Fahmy. The Supreme Court was then asked to rule on whether the parliament’s decision was constitutional. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court ruled in Fahmy’s favour.

Gayoom’s dictatorial legacy, entrenched deep within our political system is the main obstacle to the consolidation of democracy in the Maldives. The 75 year-old leader’s revived political activeness is further strengthening this obstacle. Reforms to the judiciary, independent institutions and security forces are essential if we are to consolidate and sustain democracy.

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[i] See for example, Shin, Doh Chull (1994), ‘On the third wave of democratization: A synthesis and evaluation of recent theory and research’, World Politics, 47 (1), 135-70.

 

About the author: Ahmed Hamdhan is a third-year Bachelor of Arts (Policy Studies and Political Science) student at the Australian National University. All comments represents the sole view of the author.

    2 comments

    1. Aishath

      It is a well written report. We Maldivian knew very well that Maumoon’s continuing influence over Judiciary, Media, Human rights , parliament etc. The current government does not have any power or any authority to decline his order. For example take Fahumy case. Parliament’s Independent Institutions Committee removed Fahmy from his post but less than a month he regained his post as the Supreme Court voted in favour of him. Take another example, Mr Yameen Abdul Qayoom share of involvement in terminating GMR concession agreement was higher compare to other parties. The chance of better democracy in Maldives in its fullest sense is quite bleak as most of the institutions are controlled by Gayoom’s loyalists. That’s the reason Gayoom’s supporters sacked the elected president with the help of Defense Force on 7 Feb 2012 and even forced him to resigned in front of the media.
      When we retrospect for the past 3 year terms of Mr Nasheed regime, , I think people now believe and understand whole heartedly that he served people and our nation better than any president for the past 40 years. He initiated many programs to civilians and most of them do not even think would happen in their dreams. Sadly those days are gone now but the chance of tasting better democracy again would be within our reach if we try harder this time.

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